I defy anyone to wax lyrical about Yooka-Laylee, the new platformer from Playtonic Games and Team 17, without mentioning Banjo-Kazooie. That’s why I’m going to get this out of the way here, so I can get on with telling you how great the game is. Banjo-Kazooie was one of the pioneers of 3D platforming back in the N64 days. Some of you may be aware of Rare’s seminal masterpiece thanks to the wonders of emulation, and ports to the Xbox Live Arcade platform and Rare Replay a number of years ago. The titular characters of Banjo, a honey bear in trousers, and Kazooie, one of a fictional species of birds called Breegulls, who lives in his backpack, can be found all over the internet. In short: People loved the series for it’s charming humour, outlandish characters, beautiful artwork and fantastic platforming and level design.
Yooka-Laylee isn’t Banjo-Kazooie. In the same way that Great Giana Sisters isn’t Super Mario Brothers, or The Crew isn’t Test Drive Unlimited, or dozens of games aren’t Minecraft. What it is, is brilliant. The creative talent behind the BK games have come together to create a spiritual successor to that series. It’s a classic buddy-duo 3D platformer, with loads of collectibles which allow you to open up new themed worlds to explore and new moves to explore them with. Yooka, a chameleon / iguana mashup, and Laylee, the bat who lives on his head, are both under direct player control at all times, but this isn’t as tricky as it sounds – essentially, you play exactly as you would any other platformer, but the superb and fluid animations bring the duo to life in such a way it always feels like you’re using two individual characters. Jump in the air, for example, and then hold down the jump button to glide, using Laylee’s wings spread out above Yooka’s head. Sit idle for a while, and Laylee may poke Yooka in the eye to make sure he’s still paying attention to running around the place. The great artwork and animations here are backed up by a smooth and responsive control scheme which is borderline perfect, and slipping from combat to platforming and back again is so intuitive you could be forgiven for thinking this is a well established franchise. (Well, it sort of is, but anyway).
As you effortlessly traverse the worlds of the game, you’ll solve challenges and puzzles set out by a plethora of oddball characters to be rewarded with ‘Pagies’, the games currency for opening up new worlds. You don’t have to do this immediately, though – you can choose to expand a previous world instead, which doubles it’s size and scope, adding new areas, new characters and new challenges to the free roaming environment. Some of the challenges can be quite difficult, which is refreshing as every 3D platformer aside from Super Mario 64 seems to be fairly easy. An early one sees you joining a race, where the only way to win involves you collecting pickups along the way which refill your energy meter, allowing you to roll into a ball and dash along Sonic the Hedgehog style. Miss a pickup at an inopportune moment, and you’re pretty much screwed. It’s a level of challenge which I like; just because a game looks like a Saturday morning cartoon doesn’t mean it should be a walk in the park.
There are breaks from the standard platforming fare, and these take the form of everything from finding classic arcade cabinets which allow you to play old-school style games to being transformed into a plant, and having to chat with other plants to solve their missions. The ratio of every type of gameplay is spot on – Finally make that specific gliding jump to collect that pagie at the top of the annoying tower, and havea break by taking on a shooting range which sees Yooka sucking up plant seeds and spitting them at targets. Every task awards either pagies for level progression or quills to unlock new moves. You’re never short of things to do, the quality of the gameplay is consistently high, and you’re always being rewarded with collectibles which actually do something – beyond the high scores and achievements, of course.
Yooka-Laylee does have one flaw, though, and I really wish it didn’t because it’s such a standout one: The writing and delivery of dialogue is atrocious. BK fans will recall how all of the dialogue is written in text across the screen, accompanied by an amalgam of snorts, burps, grunts and whistles. It’s the same deal here, except where with Banjo-Kazooie the writing was sharp and the sounds were balanced and comical, here it misses its mark by a mile. I’m not speaking from nostalgia, either – the first time I played BK was on the Xbox 360, and I laughed a lot at the dry humour and funny voices. In Yooka-Laylee, the sounds are overly loud and repetitive, seemingly random instead of scripted to the dialogue, and the actual script feels flat, forced and unimaginative. At first, I genuinely believed it was pre-release placeholder text. There was one spot during the game, one, where I actually laughed out loud. The rest of the time I felt rather embarrassed, to the point where I found myself actually grimacing at the screen as I listened to the noises and read the subtitles. Sure, the sounds could be fixed in a patch, but I suspect the script is here to stay. And it’s terrible.
Don’t let that put you off, however, because every other aspect is sublime. For a genre which ruled during the 90s thanks to the likes of Rare and Nintendo, bonafide 3D free-roaming platforming hasn’t been on the radar for over a decade. Yooka-Laylee brings it back in force: It’s better than Crash Bandicoot, better than Spyro the Dragon… In places, even better than its inspiration. Only let down by it’s lack of good humour, I’m pleased to say that Yooka-Laylee is everything I hoped it would be. It’s big, it’s beautiful, and it’s packed with quality content.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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